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Film Review: 'Paris, 13th District' - A Coming-of-Age Story Devoid of Revelation

Jacques Audiard’s commitment to consistently immerse himself in new forms of structure and storytelling is commendable, but the film lacks an understanding of the text’s interlocking characters and storylines.
Lucie Zhang as “Émilie” and Makita Samba as “Camille” in Jacques Audiard’s PARIS 13TH DISTRICT. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.

Lucie Zhang as “Émilie” and Makita Samba as “Camille” in Jacques Audiard’s PARIS 13TH DISTRICT. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.

The films of Jacques Audiard chaperone the audience into the unknown. His wide-ranging approach has seen him tackle the gritty prison drama (A Prophet), a French remake of James Toback’s Fingers (The Beat That My Heart Skipped), a violent western featuring an all-star cast (The Sisters Brothers), and even a melodramatic Palme d’Or winner following a group of immigrants attempting to escape the civil war in Sri Lanka (Dheepan). There is an inescapable attraction to the way he paints his characters through aphoristic social dynamics.

As with countless films made throughout the pandemic, Audiard’s latest Paris, 13th District was a product of circumstance. After the release of his English-language debut, The Sisters Brothers, the filmmaker had his sights set on a new project entitled Emilia Perez — a Mexican production following a drug mule who changes their gender. Audiard, alongside French singer-songwriter Camille, initially conceived the project as a full-blown Spanish-language opera. As COVID created difficulties in financing overseas productions, the director was forced to change directions. In a recent interview with Screen Anarchy, the director confessed, “I didn’t have anything specific in mind.” Eventually, a colleague recommended the graphic novels of Adrian Tomine’s Optic Nerve series to Audiard. The appeal of Tomine’s work was his pensive psychological analysis; “it had characters that are complex, and he also left things unexplained in them. At the same time, his drawing style doesn’t beautify things — he shows the reality of what they are like, which appealed to me as well.” Audiard’s commitment to consistently immerse himself in new forms of structure and storytelling is commendable, but the film lacks an understanding of the text’s interlocking characters and storylines—the psychological complexities that allegedly attracted Audiard to Tomine’s novels are absent. Instead, it is a graceless adaptation floundering to synthesize three separate books seamlessly into a lucid cinematic framework.

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Like the original title, Les Olympiades alludes, the film takes place in the French capital’s 13th arrondissement. Constructed initially as a marketing tool in the late sixties under a new and productive urbanism project (Italie 13), the district featured characteristic brutalist residential towers aimed at up-and-coming young professionals. In his interview with Screen Anarchy, Audiard waxes poetic on his relationship and decision for selecting the area: “the sensation that you get, when you are there, is that you are in Paris without being in Paris because it doesn’t have the look that we are all familiar with. Particularly, filming it in black and white gave me an opportunity to show an illusion that it could be not even Paris, that it could be an Asian city.” Author of Paris (CityScopes), Adam Roberts elaborates, “there was also a plan to incorporate a vast complex of sporting facilities into the development, making the Olympiades an environment that would inspire healthy living. Without leaving the development, or stepping into the streets of Paris that surrounded the city within the city, residents would have been able to access gymnasiums, swimming pools, and athletics tracks. The final result, though, was far from these initial plans.”

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The Italie 13 project received widespread criticism, was terminated within five years and is widely considered a failure. Prices were considered far too high for a complex that far west of Paris (where most prospective residents worked), and as a result, they failed to fill the majority of units. By 1975, there was an onslaught of a rapid influx of gentrification in Les Olympiades. Now deemed the Chinatown of Paris, the area has become a hotspot for Asian refugees; it was not uncommon to overcrowd a single unit with as many as four whole families. During the late seventies, Parisians began to abandon the apartment lifestyle in favor of owning a home in a nearby suburb. This transformation in city life led to an unstable living environment, as high-rises became calamitous.

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Paris, 13th District traces Emilie, Camille, Nora, and Amber, a quartet of impassioned, live-by-the-moment millennials spread throughout Les Olympiades. Audiard is careful never to make the developmental ennui the focus, despite subplots like Camille (Makita Samba) sleeping with her new roommate Émilie (Lucie Zhang), creating a turbulent living situation. Concurrently, Nora (Noémie Merlant) returns to university after some time away and fails to connect with those around her. This familiar portrait of isolation progresses into a trite relationship with a cam girl, Amber Sweet (Jehnny Beth). Despite the domestic disarray, Audiard’s focus remains on exploring human relationships as four young adults attempt to navigate their newfound independence and discover their purpose in life.

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In an interview with The Playlist, Audiard admits, “[Tomine’s] books really gave me ideas for characters that I would’ve never had. Émilie, Nora, and Amber Sweet are not characters that I would’ve thought of myself, but they were present in the novels, and the challenge was to find some overarching structure, or idea, that would unify all of these separate stories.” Yet, despite collaborating with Nicolas Livecchi, Léa Mysius, and Céline Sciamma on the screenplay, the film fails to overcome its hodgepodge of overwrought caricatures of hedonistic millennials navigating contemporary society. Audiard, who turns 70 this month, lacks any sense of forceful critique to take a position on modern love, necessary foundations for a meaningful relationship, and the digital world. The nature of the graphic novel allows for a more natural and complex entrance into the psyche of Tomine’s characters, while Audiard fails to raise any incite on the complexities of his characters’ true selves. Any signs of underlying resentment, attraction, lust, and pain are devoid from the ensemble. The coming-of-age story is devoid of revelation; instead, Audiard settles for the most straightforward supposition of what the future holds for these characters. Jacques Audiard’s lack of judgment should be refreshing and optimistic; instead, Paris, 13th District attempts to conjure a Rohmerian tale of peril and bliss within a millennial milieu but ultimately produces a frivolous story in a muddled blur of casual sex and misconstrued neurosis. 

Paris, 13th District is available in Theaters and On Demand on April 15.


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